Animal character design and ecological storytelling

This post applies what I’ve read about in the book Animal Comics: Multispecies storyworlds and graphic narratives edited by David Herman, specifically to character design of animal characters. A combination of reading this book and going to a talk series about animal storytelling at the state library/ Sydney review of books, and then going to the picture book illustration exhibition immediately afterwards has meant that I have been thinking. I’m putting down some thoughts on how to draw animal characters and iconography in a way that respects animal ways of being to expand ecological values and encode ecological knowledge in ways that feel true.

For this post I’m going to analyse three different ways of character design of animals in animation and picture books. Zoe talked about Beatrix Potter’s contribution to scientific illustration as well as her work on Peter Rabbit, so I’ll touch on them because I didn’t know about that, and Animal Comics has a chapter that is applied to Mickey Mouse, but could easily also be applied to Peter Rabbit in the approach to drawing surrealist humanoid characters, as well as the original drawings of Possum Magic I saw in the exhibition.

I’m also going to then build on ideas of surrealist drawing to then analyse two approaches to character design in Finding Nemo and The Wolfwalkers, because I think they both iconise different ways of encoding ecological knowledge that feel true to both the story being told, and the individuals and ecosystems they seek to represent.

But first… CHART

So this chart is based on a zine I made about how you can visualise ecological knowledge. All the characters I’m analysing are narratively driven, so it’s not surprising they all fall under the “character” quadrants (for reference, the chart above visualises with lines and points, an so is pretty much a typical point visualisation). That means that all of the character designs I’m analysing vary along three points of difference:

Character axis: The opposite of a point, meaning it involves the highest level of artistic and expressionist freedom in the drawing. A point is an anonymous and highly replicable visual, so much so that it requires a label to be interpreted. A pure character is an icon. The drawing is individually recognisable and emotive, where there no doubt the visual representation is unequivocally that character.

Shape axis: The opposite of a specimen, an abstract representation of an organism, ecosystem or biome.

Specimen axis: A realist and detailed visualisation of a biological organism. Often drawn for the purposes of scientific illustration and education, it is required to be individually recognisable and accurate at the anatomical and taxonomic level.

So designers play between these axes. All of the depictions are very high on the character axis, so I’m going to analyse the points of difference; the Shape/Specimen spectrum and what that means.

Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter
Peter Rabbit from https://www.peterrabbit.com

Peter Rabbit is a curious character design, and cannot be separated from Potter’s background in the natural sciences. In many respects, Peter is a specimen illustration of the European Rabbit which is native to Britain. This is no surprise considering before becoming a household name for Peter Rabbit, Potter was a mycologist and naturalist illustrator.

So Peter is drawn with the detailed lifework and colouring of a scientific illustration: Only he’s not a scientific illustration, he’s Peter Rabbit. Glenn Willmott (in Chapter 2 of Animal comics: The Animalised Character and Style proposes how the creation of a character in graphic storytelling involves creating an icon: a replicable drawing of the character to tell a story. Zoomorphic characters – or the surreal characterisations of animals where they act, speak and in the case of Peter – dress – like humans are a curious practice in creating an iconised design that is neither person nor animal.

Thus animalised characters in comics solicit our minds and our very bodies to recognise them as persons from a strange concatenation of mental and material predicates, in units of image and word. Their very strangeness as icons is normalised by modern mass media culture: to be sure, they can never line up precisely with any person ascribed to actual life, but we likely classify them easily enough, but in the cognitive category of artefact, sub-category mimesis (cultural production), here of fantasy creatures

Willmott in Herman (2021), Ch2, p. 55

I think that Peter Rabbit fits into the ideas that Willmott is describing. He is unquestionably an icon of mass media culture. The Peter Rabbit picture books have expanded into all sorts of franchise. With each iteration, it seems Peter Rabbit moves further away from a rabbit, and further into its own iconography. Although Potter’s original design is clearly based on the wildlife she observed, the creation of a rabbit character that wears clothes, stands on its hind legs falls into that uncanny category of fantasy creatures.

Nemo
A screenshot from Pixar’s Finding Nemo

The characters of Finding Nemo are designed differently to Peter Rabbit. They are much less specimen, and much more character. The visible unreality embodied within the design of Nemo means that – unlike Peter Rabbit and its specimen-like iconography – it is assumed from the outset that this is a fantastical story. This enables more space for the viewer to suspend contradictory beliefs at the same time.

We recognise Finding Nemo characters as persons, while simultaneously recognising them as particular fish. Nemo and Marlin are clown fish, not just any old fish. They swim and move like clown fish, they are clown-fish sized and live in clown fish anemones. Where Peter Rabbit makes rabbits fantastical, zoomorphic characters, Finding Nemo applies personality and character to individuals of a species. Nemo is surreal enough to tell character-driven stories with facial expressions and speech, while balancing the fishiness of each individual character. Where typical zoomorphic characters will make icons which are humanoid in their habits and movements (Willmott, 2021), Nemo strikes a balance in applying humanoid facial expressions while maintaining the animalism of the characters.

Wolfwalkers

Cartoon Saloon’s film The Wolfwalkers uses shape identities to represent wolves, plants and animals, townscapes and humans. Where Nemo emphasises each character as an individual of each species, The Wolfwakers creates shapes that move between each other and as part of an ecosystem. The wolves move as one pack, where their bodies flow in patterns.

Representing ecological storytelling as a system of shapes and patterns means that the viewer can code those shapes and see how they relate to other species and humans. This means that the movement and shape formation of human characters varies based on their relationship to the land and ecosystem. Mebh (pictured) is a wolf walker and even in her human form, moves in shape with the Wolfpack. Other characters in town are shaped and move in rectangular and mechanical ways: mirroring their surroundings.

Emphasising shapes in character design is a way of creating a visual representation of an ecosystem and ecological processes.


At the start of writing this blog post I was clear that Peter Rabbit was very different to the other two routes of character design of animals. Now I’m not so sure….

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